You would think an endurance athlete would only benefit from training their cardiovascular system. It’s specific to the task they will be doing on race day. Spending time in the weight room doing squats, deadlift, lunges, pull ups, and presses would be a waste of time and would just add useless bulk. Well you’d be mistaken. Strength training can be utilized to improve an athletes’ abilities in their endurance sport. Whether its running, obstacle course races, triathlons, soccer, or rowing, strength training will set you up for success.
How Does Strength Training Help the Endurance Athlete?
Posture and better technique is held during a long race when specific muscles are trained to keep the torso stable and the shoulder in a good position. This can be seen in an exhausted runner. When the body is fatigued and the spinal erectors, lats, and muscles of the shoulder blade are weak the torso begins to lean forward. The head, neck, and chest drop which throws the body off balance. When the torso shifts forward the quads have to do more work than the glutes and hamstrings. Shifting forward also adds stress to the low back. When running economy is thrown off then the body is using more energy than it should.
This is also seen in rowers with poor shoulder blade positioning. Triathletes need good muscles to surround the shoulder during the swim, strong legs for the bike, and good posture for the run. Soccer players need a strong core for the physical components but also in the power they need to accelerate quickly and kick the ball harder.
When performing a compound exercise like the a squat or deadlift your are using so many stabilizing muscles that hold the body in alignment. The muscles that surround the ribs, spine and pelvis need to be stable and strong. Lifting weight will strengthen the connective tissue around these joints. As the muscles and tendons are stressed the body responds by improving motor unit recruitment, strengthen the tendons, and increasing muscle fiber size.
With the extra strength and stability the core will resist excess movement from external forces. When the muscles in the hips, spine, and shoulders are stable the body maintains better posture and technique. The toros will not shift forward or twist side to side too much. The hips, glutes, and hamstrings can keep a better stride so the quads and low back don’t fatigue too quickly. The swimmer can maintain a smooth rhythm without having to change their breathing pattern because they have slowed down too much from exhausted shoulders or hips. Increasing strength and coordination of the muscle around your joints will improve body awareness and balance. This balance and control leads to better movement economy.
Slightly opposite to the point above, there are some areas that need to be mobile and move full range of motion. Moving the muscles through a full range of motion can help you stay limber and keep from becoming too stiff. When a runner doesn’t spend time training the hips through a full range of motion they begin to develop stiff hip flexors, hamstrings, and quads that can lead to aching tightness. The legs are only used to contracting when running for multiple miles and thousands of repetitions. Your body begins to stiffen into the positions you use during training sessions. You need to spend time moving these joints through the full range of motion against some resistance to keep creating too many imbalances.
When it comes to a cyclist, the goal is maintain a certain power output or wattage on the bike. This is the amount of force an athlete puts into the bike with their legs. Strength training can increase power output on the bike and help increase interval times. Training maximal strength has been seen to improve cycling economy and increase time to exhaustion at their maximal aerobic power. These results come from the body’s nervous system expressing the ability to recruit more muscle fibers. This is referred to as neuromuscular efficiency. How well can you recruit the muscle fibers you need to exert force and stabilize joints? Training for strength is essentially aiming to improve neuromuscular efficiency. Improving your ability to activate more motor units in a shorter amount of time can be used be beneficial to the majority of endurance athletes.
Because of the added benefits above you can now enjoy your sport for longer. When your strength training is designed to hold the joints together and move safely then you can hold off the compensations/imbalances that build. If an athlete trains for years in bad positions imbalances occur in other parts of the body. When the glutes and hips are weak the athlete will eventually have low back and knee pain from bad technique and insufficient stability in the hips and back muscles. Strength training should keep the body well rounded so muscles do not become over-developed in an area mostly used in the sport. This can be seen in cyclists who become quad dominant and neglect the upper body, core and glutes.
Stick to the Compound Lifts
As an endurance athlete most of your time will be practicing and training your aerobic system and strength training will be supplementary. To get the most out of your workout the exercise selection should be those that involve the most power output. These are the compound lifts that involve multiple muscle groups that stabilize and move the body. To name a few are the squat, deadlift, pull up, bench press, overhead press, row, lunges, etc. These lifts bring about the highest mechanical tension to give you the most “bang for your buck” when it comes to force and power development.
The number of session per week focused on strength training will depend on the athletes schedule. If you only have time for one session a week then train upper and lower body lifts. If you have two session then one day is upper body and the other is lower body. Three sessions could be upper, then lower, then accessory lifts for weak spots. These can slightly change as you move to in-season and/or approach a race. But this can become a major opportunity to prioritize strength adaptations in the off-season.
To elicit the adaptation of better neuromuscular efficiency without gaining too much mass I would recommend staying in the 1-6 reps range. If you are in an off season and would like to add some extra mass then reps ranges from 3-15 have been seen to grow muscle size. But as far as increasing motor unit recruitment and power output, the smaller rep ranges (1-6) have been shown to work best.
These compound exercises need to be treated with respect. If you are new to these exercises I highly recommend you get in front of a professional who can ensure you are moving safely. This is a learning process of improving body awareness and strength. Take the time to do it correctly and you will avoid trouble down the road.
Be sure to share this with your friends in an endurance sport. If you would like to know more about this topic let me know in the comments!
1. Greenfield, Ben. “The 5 Essential Elements of An Endurance Training Program That Most Athletes Neglect: Part 1 – Strength.” Bengreenfieldfitness.com, 2013, bengreenfieldfitness.com/article/fitness-articles/workouts-exercise-articles/strength-training-for-endurance/.
2. Schoenfeld, Brad J. The Mechanisms of Muscle Hypertrophy and Their Application to Resistance Training, 2010, doi:10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181e840f3.
3. Sunde, Arnstein, et al. “Maximal Strength Training Improves Cycling Economy in… : The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research.” LWW, Oxford University Press, Aug. 2010, journals.lww.com/nsca-jscr/Fulltext/2010/08000/Maximal_Strength_Training_Improves_Cycling_Economy.26.aspx.